Free-diving with a shark in Hawaii was a life-changing moment for USC Animal Ecology graduate Jessica Skinner, pictured here during a whale shark research project.
Free-diving with a shark in Hawaii was a life-changing moment for USC Animal Ecology graduate Jessica Skinner, pictured here during a whale shark research project. Contributed

How diving with tiger shark launched a dream career

STARTING university at the age of 30 can be daunting - but not as daunting as locking eyes with a tiger shark.

But for Jessica Skinner, it was her close encounter with the apex predator that led her to the lecture rooms of USC's Fraser Coast campus.

Ms Skinner was diving in a Hawaii when she had the life-changing experience.

She came home, quit her job managing a dog grooming salon, and applied for a Bachelor of Animal Ecology degree.

"The moment I made eye contact with the shark I knew what I needed to be doing with my life,” she said said.

The 33-year-old Toogoom dive master had previously ruled out starting university despite a long-held ambition to become a marine biologist.

Ms Skinner moved to Hervey Bay from the Sunshine Coast this year to complete her degree at the local campus.

She then started honours study under the supervision of Kathy Townsend, a Fraser Coast-based lecturer who leads the international Project Manta research project.

"When I started university at 30, I was petrified that I wouldn't be good enough. We only get one life and I think it's important to follow your passions,” Ms Skinner said.

Recently, she received a job offer as a marine biologist in New Zealand but turned down the position to continue her postgraduate studies.

Ms Skinner, who gained her open water scuba diving certification when she was 14 and is qualified as a dive master, said she had always wanted to be a marine biologist.

"I love the ocean, free-diving, snorkelling and anything outdoors, and I am obsessed with all kinds of animals,” she said.

Her decision to study at USC has taken Ms Skinner to far-flung destinations, including work placements at Lord Howe Island, the South Pacific Island of Mo'orea and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.

She also completed volunteer marine conservation diving expeditions in Indonesia, and great white shark research in South Africa.

Although she is still finalising her honours thesis topic, it will focus on the effect of warming oceans and climate change on migration patterns and paths of local manta ray populations.

"My dream job is to be involved with shark conservation and research, or marine-based eco-tourism. I also love to educate others on our marine environment and organisms,” she said.



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